Friday, April 22, 2016

PACER Fees Face Legal Fire

On Thursday, three nonprofit groups filed a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The complaint, which is available free from the Alliance for Justice website and the Internet Archive, alleges that the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts charges excessive fees to access federal court filings on its PACER service (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). The Wall Street Journal Law Blog and ABA Journal have helpful write-ups of the case background.

As legal researchers know, is the official source for federal court filings, and is currently used in all federal jurisdictions except the U.S. Supreme Court (which announced in its 2014 Year-End Report of the Chief Justice that it is developing its own electronic alternative for filings). PACER requires individuals to register an account, along with a credit card for payment of any fees incurred above $15 in a quarterly billing period. Fees in PACER (for both searching and viewing individual case documents, currently $0.10 per page with individual document caps of $3.00) are intended to keep the service self-funded. However, the complaint notes that PACER fees collected by the Administrative Office (estimated as $145 million in 2014) far exceed the actual costs of maintaining the service, and that the additional revenue has funded non-PACER initiatives, contrary to Congress's stated intent. The complaint includes an informative history of PACER's fee schedule, and past lawsuits concerning PACER fees.

The Goodson Law Library's research guide to Court Records & Briefs lists a few options for legal researchers to track the progress of a particular case docket, including National Veterans Legal Services Program et al v. United States. The free docket search at Justia Dockets includes an information page for this lawsuit with direct links to the appropriate PACER site, but only case documents which are tagged as free "opinions" within PACER will be available to download from the case info page. However, the Internet Archive is providing a free mirror of the case docket with access to documents.

Current members of the Law School community may also view the case docket and download documents through Bloomberg Law's Litigation & Dockets tab. (See our research guide to PACER Access via Bloomberg Law for more about Bloomberg's free educational access to PACER materials for Law School accounts.)

For help accessing these or other federal court filings, be sure to Ask a Librarian.